Picked up by MTV films after causing a stir at Sundance and other film festivals, "Better Luck Tomorrow" is a promising second feature from director/writer Justin Lin. The picture follows Ben (Parry Shen), Virgil (Jason J. Tobin), Han (Sung Kang), and Daric (Roger Fan), a group of highly intelligent high schoolers whose concerns consisted of getting into college, although getting into a good school is largely a given for them. They've gotten excellent grades, volunteer and, on the weekend, clean up the beaches.
The problem - they're bored. Living in Orange County and finding themselves with little in the way of parental supervision, they seek new avenues to cure their boredom. Trusted via their grades, and apparently model members of the community, they find it too easy to start doing things that don't belong anywhere near a college application. Things start off small, but scamming the local computer store and running a cheat-sheet ring leads to bigger and bolder criminal acts, including drugs.
I liked how the film built slowly, surely. The characters taste what they can get away with and, lacking any punishment, feel free to take things one step further. Before they know it, they're in over their heads and the grades that kept them covered from what they've been into slip away. The opening is particularly disturbing, as the two main characters sun themselves and talk about early college admissions. A phone rings. They look at each other, confirming that it's not either of theirs. They look towards the ground, where the ringing seems to be coming from.
I found this to be a more effective film than the somewhat overhyped "Thirteen", as it built up towards its conclusion more smoothly and believably. "Better Luck Tomorrow" was controversial during its Sundance premiere for the way it portrayed Asian characters, but rather than focusing on the fact that the characters are Asian, audiences should realize that the film could apply to kids anywhere who can portray a well-intentioned student and yet, still fall into a bad crowd or become aimless after they've succeeded in all the things they're supposed to succeed in and start doing things they're not due to boredom or the feeling of trying to get out from under expectations or both ("It's suburbia, there's nothing else to do." says one of the characters.)
Despite being made on a low budget, "Better Luck Tomorrow" still has a strong visual style, captured well by cinematographer Patrice Lucien Cochet. Director Lin also served as the editor. Don't be concerned with the MTV Films logo; the picture is stylized, but the look of the picture mainly comes from interesting compositions; there's little rapid editing or unnecessary camera movement here. Some of the scenes could have done without music, though. The film's writing is sometimes a little rough, but the cast creates strong, vivid characters that keep the film compelling. Karin Anna Cheung is especially good as Stephanie, the object of affection in a love triangle between herself, Ben and Steve (Justin Cho). There's a few flaws scattered about, but this is an troubling and confident picture, and I look forward to Lin's next.
VIDEO: "Better Luck Tomorrow" is presented by Paramount in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality is generally as good as one could expect, given the film's low budget. Sharpness and detail are fine, but they vary a bit, with some scenes appearing slightly soft and others looking more well-defined.
The picture does often appear noticably grainy, maybe due to the film stock. Aside from the noticable grain, nothing else really negatively effects the viewing experience. There's no edge enhancement present during the presentation, nor are there any compression artifacts. A slight speck or two is present on the print, but certainly nothing serious. Colors are well-rendered, with nicely saturated tones and no concerns.
SOUND: The film is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. Surrounds are used primarily for reinforcing the musical score and get little other use. This is mainly a front-focused sound mix, with few other touches. Audio quality is good, however, with clean music and dialogue.
EXTRAS: Writer/director/editor Justin Lin and co-writer Fabian Marquez. The two provide an entertaining, if rather unfocused discussion of the making of the feature. There's plenty of information to be found about how the two worked with a low budget to make a strong-looking feature, but there are also patches of silence and some instances where the discussion starts to go a bit off-topic. Their commentary is the only supplement included on the DVD, unfortunately.
Final Thoughts: "Better Luck Tomorrow" is a powerful and involving feature from Justin Lin. While somewhat flawed in spots, it offers excellent performances and a disturbing, effective tale. The DVD offers fine audio/video and an enjoyable commentary. Recommended.
The Film *** 1/2